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George Best 1946-2005: Angels weep as Georgie,the Belfast boy is laid to rest; City unite to say goodbye to their favourite son.

Byline: From BRIAN LIRONI in Belfast

THE funeral of football legend George Best yesterday achieved what many believed impossible - uniting the divided city of Belfast.

Religious differences were put aside as more than 100,000 people lined the streets of the city to say goodbye.

Even the angels seemed to weep as the rain swept Stormont's Great Hall, where mourners, including family, friends, both his former wives and other sporting greats gathered.

Best, 59, died eight days ago in Cromwell Hospital, London, never having won his long battle with alcohol.

His son Calum, 24, fought back the tears as he led mourners at yesterday's extraordinary funeral.

He finally broke down as he read a poem called Farewell Our Friend, written by Belfast woman Julie McLelland, who emailed it to the family the night before.

Her touching verse includes the lines: "We can shed tears because he is gone or we can smile because he has lived."

Afterwards, Calum said: "I read it and it just struck a chord with me. It just summed up my old man in my eyes.

"It's something my old man would want - the fact that somebody from Belfast has written a poem about him will mean a lotHe said his father had been able to do in life and death what most could only dream of - unite a country.

Calum added: "That's what my dad did in some ways.

"He was a great entertainer and a great man so, no matter what religion, Best fans came together to enjoy a good game and it showed on the streets today. I am so proud to be his son and I know he's proud of me.

"He is resting now and he's in peace and I miss him loads but I'll try my hardest to keep it going."

Best's sister Barbara also paid tribute to her brother during the 80-minute service.

She said: "Do not look on George as gone - he has only stepped off the pitch."

In a city that still shows the scars of bitter divisions, everyone - from all communities - stood together in the cold and rain.

Old men paid their respects in their black ties, youngsters did the same with the football colours of Manchester United and Northern Ireland.

Grannies brought flasks of tea and toddlers in pushchairs held single flowers in their hands waiting for the signal to throw.

Police officers stood at every junction in a bid to control the incredible surge of people into the city. By midmorning, more than 20,000 people were already lining the streets between the Cregagh estate, where Best grew up, and the Stormont estate, where his funeral would take place.

They stood five and six deep, just like they did to watch him play.

Best's coffin appeared from his father Dickie's terraced home on the shoulders of six pallbearers just after 10am.

As it emerged into the Belfast rain, his old neighbours burst into dignified applause which continued as he was placed in the hearse.

His 86-year-old dad, four sisters and other family members filed into three limousines.

As the cortege started on its way to Stormont, Best's former neighbours threw flowers.

Youngsters threw football scarfs, hats and the football tops of Manchester United, Northern Ireland, Celtic and Rangers.

The first car in the cortege carried only flowers, from friends and well-wishers, including a large white "legend".

Best's coffin travelled in a second car with another another flower arrangement, this time in the red of his beloved Manchester United, spelling out "George".

All the way along the three-mile route to Stormont, the people of Belfast stood and applauded Best and his family.

More than 35,000 people were in the grounds of Stormont when the cortege arrived half an hour later.

Massive video screens were set up to allow them to watch proceedings inside the Great Hall of Parliament House.

As Best's coffin was carried into Stormont, a guard of honour made up of local children stood in silence.

The boys - from Best's primary school, Nettlefield, and his first football club Cregagh Rangers - looked on solemnly in their white strips as the coffin filed past.

The pallbearers, led by Scottish football great Denis Law and former Northern Ireland boss Billy Bingham, carried the coffin to the front of the Great Hall before taking their seats.

At the service, soccer legends such as Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson and former Celtic manager Martin O'Neill - who played alongside Bestie for Northern Ireland - joined the mourners.

England manager Sven Goran Eriksson also paid his respects and former boxing champion Barry McGuigan - a close friend of Best - seemed overcome with emotion.

Best's two former wives Angie and Alex were also there, along with the star's last girlfriend, Ros Hollidge.

First wife Angie, 53, and mother of their son Calum, carried a red rose to the cemetery, where Best was buried next to his beloved mother Ann.

Second wife Alex also came to show her affection for him, despite their divorce in April 2004 after nine years of marriage. She did not attend the graveside ceremony.

Best's countryman, TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, welcomed everyone to the service and introduced the first hymn, The Lord is my Shepherd.

Then Scotland hero Denis Law paid tribute to his former Manchester United team-mate and friend.

Law, who was with Best in hospital the day he died, said he wanted to talk about George's kindness and infectious personality, as well as his football skills.

His light-hearted eulogy recalled how often Best would let him down and go out drinking instead of keeping appointments.

The service concluded with Peter Corry singing Lennon and McCartney's The Long and Winding Road.

It seemed a fitting tribute to Best - the man dubbed the Fifth Beatle in the 60s


Team-mate: Martin O'Neill; Outpouring of grief: Scarves, including Rangers and Celtic, are thrown; Sobbing: Angie during the service; Showing affection: Alex; Last respects: Alex Ferguson; Fitting message: The floral tribute spells out the feelings of so many; Farewell to a hero: Tens of thousands of people, from both sides of the religious divide, honour a great; Tearful: Calum with a ball in the Northern Ireland colours; Legend: George Best; Kids' tribute: Cregagh Rangers boys form a guard of honour
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 4, 2005
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